Making Change in Chinatown

A blog post


Making Change in Chinatown
Written by Ellen Somekawa, January 2013 

Asian Americans United is a pan-Asian organization, but I’m going to spend my time today focusing on our arts and cultural work in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Chinatown is a residential community. Many people experience Chinatowns as tourist destinations or as places where we can go to eat out cheaply. But when you walk through Chinatown, lift your eyes up from the ground floor. People are living above the restaurants and businesses. 

Chinatown plays a role as a center of life for new immigrants, a place to get oriented, to find work, to live. Many if not most of the businesses – the food stores, laundromats, insurance companies, hair salons, even the restaurants – serve the local community. 

If Chinatown is not recognized as a residential neighborhood, then its needs for those things that healthy neighborhoods need are discounted. There is not a public playground, a recreation center, a library, a community center, and –– until we ourselves started one, there was not a public school –– in Chinatown. Yet repeatedly what policy makers have tried to sell is the idea that what will be good for Chinatown is a convention center, a prison, a baseball stadium, a casino.

So Chinatown has had to struggle to save its physical existence. 

The power of graphics to create a unified message: Anti-stadium march, June 2000.
Photo courtesy of AAU. 2000 © Asian Americans United

At Asian Americans United, we see art as a critical part of these struggles.

  • We have come to see the power of multiples. In the fight against the stadium in Chinatown, the first protest march had different organizations jockeying for position to get their banners in front of others.  One brilliant immigrant leader said, we are going to collect donations from businesses so we can print t-shirts to give away and have everyone wearing the same message. We’re going to have one banner that represents all of us.
  • We also see the power of humor. In the fight against putting a casino a block away from Chinatown, we got so sick of going to public hearings that were just a mockery of democracy. We couldn’t drag ourselves to one more hearing much less work to convince others to go. We decided to have an anti-casino circus. 

The power of humor: Public hearings were a mockery of democracy, so we just took it a step further and held our own anti-casino circus, June 2009
Poster by Kathy Shimizu. 2009 © Asian Americans United                                                                    
Art in the service of a movement can magnify and clarify our message. It can help us create actions that are joyful acts of resistance and creativity––liberated spaces that energize and activate people.

In addition to struggling to exist as a neighborhood, Chinatown has also had to struggle for its right to culture. The right to culture is a fundamental human right, yet it is a right that people in immigrant and refugee communities have to struggle to maintain. 

Every year, for one day, we close down the main street of Chinatown and reclaim it for the community. Under the Chinatown gate, thousands of people gather to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest moon festival that signifies the family reunification, a particularly poignant holiday for an immigrant community where so many are suffering from a separation from their families. 

As we fight for social justice in our neighborhoods, we need to build a sense of history and belonging-to-place among people whose lives are marked by dislocation and a sense of non-belonging. 

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a tradition that Asian Americans United has built and sustained for eighteen years. It is, by design, home grown. 120 high school students volunteer every year to make it run, over 80 artists share their talents, a dozen restaurants donate food to feed the volunteers and artists throughout the day, a committee of over 25 mainly young people plan the festival. The act of creating the festival is activist training: how do we coordinate big numbers of people, how do we keep true to our politics and mission, how do we engage community members, what values do we seek to embody?

Several years ago, I was talking with youth in AAU’s youth leadership program. We were talking about inequity in funding for public education. I told the students that Philadelphia schools get about $9,000 for each student they serve while just across the county line on the Main Line, schools like Radnor and Lower Merion get something like $22,000 for each student. In this group of Asian American and African American youth who went to some of Philadelphia’s most troubled schools, there was no anger, there were no protestations that this inequality was unfair, no questions even about why or whether this was right. Only that, well, things are probably this way because they deserve better things in the suburbs. And that “we’d only wreck it if we had nice things in our schools” . . . How profoundly sad . . . that these young people had no expectation that they deserve an equal shot or that the world should be just.

How will we build movements for justice when there is a pervasive belief that we can’t expect justice? Among poor folks in communities of color, over the last couple of decades, this belief has, I think, become corrosive. In our communities, we need to work to build people’s capacity for rage, rage against injustice.

To do this, though we need to create spaces to attend to matters of the heart and spirit. Some people wonder why a social justice organization spends so much of its time and resources teaching folk arts to kids, gathering the Chinatown community for an annual cultural festival or even building our new charter school. We founded a folk arts charter school in large part because we wanted to nurture a sense of compassion and caring among young children. We wanted to nurture the belief that we are not put on this earth to be passive spectators and consumers of what is placed in front of us, but rather we are all here to be the shapers of society. 

We need demonstrations, actions, and lobbying, yes. But we also need to spend time teaching our children, helping to create connections among neighbors, honoring the elderly in our communities, and valuing our cultures. Because if people don’t care deeply about their neighbors, their fellow workers or themselves, what will motivate them to stand up for each other? And if people are not up for caring about their neighbors, what happens when it comes time to stand up for those who are defined as other?

If we are to sustain this work for justice over lifetimes and generations, we need to find joy and love in the struggle. Arts and cultural work plays a key role in this process of engaging people in experiencing the fullness of their humanity. 

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